If the name Wally Yonamine doesn't ring a bell for you, you're not alone. Yonamine, "the first post-World War II American in Japan baseball," died Feb. 28 in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Nowadays, it is not unusual for North American players to cross the Pacific Ocean in pursuit of fortune and fame. Marginal major leaguers such as Randy Bass, Alex Cabrera and Tuffy Rhodes have thrived in Nippon Professional Baseball. In 2010, Matt Murton broke Ichiro Suzuki's long-standing record for most hits in a single season.
All of them owe a debt of gratitude (and then some) to Yonamine, who paved the way for future generations. Known as "The Nisei Jackie Robinson," Yonamine first played halfback and defensive back for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers before turning to baseball following a wrist injury. Former All-Star Lefty O'Doul suggested that he take his skills to Japan, and so Yonamine did. It wasn't easy:
The beginnings were arduous and hardly auspicious in Japan, where Yonamine initially spoke little of the language, was viewed as an interloper and then had the boldness to crash into convention as if he were breaking up a double play.
His go-for-broke play was initially seen as an in-your-face anathema to the less-aggressive Japanese style at the time. For instance, it was unheard of for a batter laying down a sacrifice bunt to race to first. And it was considered unsporting to slide hard in trying to break up a double play, both of which Yonamine did with relish.
In Hiroshima, Yonamine recalled, a group of gangsters threatened to have him killed. In Nagoya, a mob of baseball fans pursued him into the dugout. In Osaka they launched rocks from the stands.
Despite these distractions, Yonamine hit .335 in his rookie campaign, helping lead the Yomiuri Giants to the first of their eight pennants during his decade with the team. He hit .311/.385/.445 for his career, winning three batting titles, being named Central League MVP in 1957, and stealing home a record 11 times.
After his playing days, Yonamine became manager of the Chunichi Dragons, a position he held from 1972 through 1977. In 1994, the same year as the legendary Sadaharu Oh, Yonamine became the first American player elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
If his name isn't as familiar on this side of the Pacific as it should be, there is no doubting Yonamine's legacy. A Hawaii high school baseball tournament bears his name, and no less than Hideki Matsui has sung Yonamine's praises:
Everybody knows about Wally. He is someone from the past that we still look up. I'm still learning from Wally.
We're all still learning from Wally. May he rest in peace.